Every country has a reputation, be it for especially flavorful food, extraordinary architecture, or stunning natural beauty and historic sites. Central American countries have varied reputations, such as Costa Rica being the golden child for adventure seekers and Guatemala and Honduras being the place to head for Mayan archeological sites.
As for El Salvador’s reputation, up until a few years ago, it was pretty much known for being the place to avoid because of gang violence. But that’s changing quickly and dramatically.
Most Americans likely don’t know much about El Salvador, partly because our news outlets rarely cover the country, and when they do, they only focus on its tumultuous past. But over the past few years, El Salvador’s new president, Nayib Bukele, has made sweeping reforms (including incarcerating an estimated 64,000 people), and as a result, the homicide rate has fallen precipitously. Thousands of gang members have been locked up, and a new prison is being built to house an estimated 40,000 suspected gang members. El Salvador is now one of the safest places in Central America.
Many of these reforms have been sharply criticized both internally and internationally due to the government becoming a full-on incarceration machine, which you also likely haven’t seen covered much by mainstream U.S. news. There is a fair debate to be had about the potential civil rights violations that have accompanied Bukele’s crackdown on gangs. But wherever one draws the line between justifiable policing, public safety, and civil rights violations, there is no denying that El Salvador has become a much safer country, and travelers are taking note.
Earlier this year, I spent a week in El Salvador, and nearly every person I spoke with, from tour guides and taxi drivers to random locals I met while soaking in hot springs, couldn’t stop talking about the change. Every single person I spoke with told me how much safer they felt, and many were very happy to see an increasing number of tourists arriving, many from the United States.
But how exactly are Americans learning about El Salvador? The tiny country doesn’t have much of an advertising budget, and even if El Salvador could afford a fancy tourism campaign, many Americans probably wouldn’t believe the ads simply because the images of gang violence had been drilled into their minds so strongly. So, I began asking every American I met how they heard about El Salvador. What made them want to visit? Where did they find the information needed to plan their trip? How did they organize their vacation? To my surprise, every single one of them had the same answer: TikTok.
Not only had these travelers learned about El Salvador through the TikTok pages of friends and influencers, but they also used the app to help plan their entire trip. Every attraction they visited, they had learned about on TikTok. The restaurants they ate at (and, often, what they ordered off the menu) had been recommended through TikTok. Hotels and B&Bs they stayed in were featured on someone’s TikTok page. The guides that took them around had been promoted by TikTok influencers, as had the taxi drivers they used to whisk them around the country.
In several cases, Americans told me they contacted a guide or driver directly through TikTok, told them which sites they wanted to visit (which they had also learned about on TikTok), and showed up with some cash. It couldn’t have been easier.
I don’t have TikTok, so, when I returned to the U.S., I borrowed my nephew’s phone to watch some of these videos myself. Not only did I find many videos confirming everything I’d heard from travelers on the ground, but I also saw that some TikTok influencers (or wannabe influencers, I’m not really sure the threshold) offered an added benefit of hiring a driver: you have someone to take your picture during the trip. Of course.
We have all seen it. A city erecting a huge, colorful mural on Main Street, or a town painting a set of angel wings. In both cases, the hope is to attract visitors to line up and snap social media pictures in front of them. On the food front, we are seeing restaurants adapting their menus to create over-the-top dishes where the focus is more on how pretty or wild it will look online than on how good it will taste. Case in point: last month, I spent Thanksgiving in Europe, where I found restaurants serving veggie burgers topped with electric blue sauce and served on bright pink hamburger buns. Why is this necessary? To get more likes, of course!
El Salvador seems to have capitalized on this trend, offering over-the-top, hyper-Instagrammable—and now, TikTokable—attractions at every turn. One of the first and most popular of these attractions is the Bicicleta, which is sometimes referred to as a “Sky Bike” or a “Zip Line Bike.” Instead of gliding below the zip line cable, as you would with a traditional zip line (referred to as canopy in Latin America), you ride a bike on top of it. The rider wears a helmet and harness, so there is no chance of falling, but the bikes are rickety, unstable, and thrilling, and locals and tourists alike line up for a chance to ride one.
For many American travelers, their first stop in El Salvador is the Sky Bike at El Quijote Volcán restaurant and adventure park, which is just 30 minutes from the capital city of San Salvador. Here, you’ll also find a traditional zip line and an enormous swing (try all three with the “Trio Extremo” for only $30), but the bike is, by far, the most popular.
Just two minutes down the road from El Quijote is Picnic Steakhouse, which, in true Salvadorian fashion, is also a restaurant with an adventure park. The big draw here is the enormous rainbow-colored slide that visitors are pushed down on an innertube. Of course, most riders first photograph themselves on the rainbow slide and ask someone in their group (or their driver) to video them sliding down. The slide is beautiful, and the ride is big fun, so I also enthusiastically rode down the slide while my guide filmed me. Thanks, Alfredo!
Was I the first American to visit the slide with Alfredo? Of course not, as he told me he’s been contacted by other travelers who planned their trip on TikTok. In his experience, the Picnic’s Rainbow Slide is the most requested attraction. Indeed, its clout on TikTok is undeniable: dozens upon dozens of videos filmed at the Rainbow Slide have accrued eye-popping viewer counts in the multi-millions.
About two hours from San Salvador, you’ll find another popular sky bike in Apaneca, a small city along the Ruta de Las Flores (more on that below). At the Café Albania adventure park (and restaurant, of course), I found dozens of travelers lined up alongside locals at what seemed to be the most popular adventure park I came across. Here, visitors clamored to ride the sky bike and surfboard, wander through the labyrinth maze (or zip line above it), swing high above the trees on the péndulo swing, or rush down the Tobogán, Café Albania’s own version of the rainbow slide that is, of course, also a guaranteed source of views on TikTok.
Last year, Café Albania introduced the Surf en el Aire, and it immediately one-upped the sky bike, which had previously one-upped the traditional zip line. To sky surf, participants stand on a surfboard attached to zip line cables both above and below the board. Unlike actual surfing, where you extend your arms out for balance, riders hold on to handles and cords above and beside them.
Café Albania also managed to one-up the traditional set of colorful angel wing murals by installing them onto a swing. Two highly social media-ready features for the price of one. Genius.
Other popular attractions and activities around El Salvador have frequently made their way into TikTok videos: travelers swimming in Tamanique waterfalls, jet skiing at the crystalline Lake Coatepeque, riding horses on the beach and relaxing in the picturesque pools at Nawi Beach House; and hiking high above the glowing crater lake at the center of Santa Ana volcano.
I kept seeing the same Americans at these various thrill-seeking attractions because they had all seen them featured on TikTok. When I visited the less Instagram-ready destinations, I saw none of these same people, which is a shame because rainbow slides and sky bikes are only a small, non-representative sampling of what El Salvador has to offer.
El Salvador is a tremendously beautiful destination with kind people, delicious food, and an incredible variety of attractions. Sure, TikTok (and social media in general) are going to showcase all things flashy and kitschy, but El Salvador offers so much more. It takes only 7-8 hours to cross the entire country, which is so geographically diverse that you could wake up at the beach, visit a historic city center in the afternoon, then sleep in the mountains if you like.
El Salvador has eight volcanoes (all of which can be visited and explored), numerous Mayan archeological sites, countless beaches (take your pick of black, gray, or yellow sand), and several national parks and adventure parks offering hiking, biking, camping, rappelling, and via ferrata. There’s also plenty of whale-watching, bungee jumping, sailing, and ATVing.
Looking for the perfect mix of nature, adventure, and relaxation? Hike to the top of Santa Ana volcano (where you will surely see TikTokers), or through the dense jungle-like foliage of the Cerro Verde volcano (where you probably won’t see TikTokers).
Whichever you choose, consider overnighting at the gorgeous Casa 1800 Cerro Verde hotel, which is located within Cerro Verde National Park. Not only will you literally be staying on top of the Cerro Verde volcano, but the hotel (and many of its rooms’ private patios) offer views of Izalco, another nearby volcano.
El Salvador’s western coast is one of the best places for surfing in the western hemisphere, and it frequently hosts international surfing competitions. The highly popular El Tunco Beach (about 30 minutes from the airport) is laid-back, unpretentious, and has half a dozen surf shops offering lessons. It has everything from vegan eateries and yoga retreats to kombucha hawkers and tea shops, and it feels like an affordable mini Tulum without the crowds and frat-bro vibe. I loved it.
Whether you hire a driver or you’re behind the wheel yourself, make sure to add the Ruta de las Flores to your itinerary. Five colonial towns make up the 20-mile “flower route,” beginning with Nahuizalco. Known for historical churches, lively produce markets, and traditional handicraft shops, these tiny towns and villages can easily be explored on foot. Though you’ll find fantastic food all along the route, Juayua is especially well-known for its weekend food festival, where you’ll encounter familiar items like barbecued chicken and less-common items like rabbit, iguana, and frog legs. The city is right in the middle of the Ruta de las Flores, so it makes for a great lunch spot when driving through.
While you technically could visit all five towns in one day by quickly stopping for a walk and a snack, consider spending a day exploring just one or two to really get a feel for the local culture. If you can only stay overnight in one of the towns, then Ataco, the last town on the route, is probably your best bet. Ataco is known for its vibrant street murals, beautiful town square, neighborhood conga bus, and great coffee (be sure to take a coffee tour El Carmen Estate coffee farm and resort and buy some beans). Ataco is also close to several hot springs, including a quieter, more relaxed collection of pools at Alicante or a busier set of pools with more amenities at Santa Teresa.
A note on Salvadorian food: Make sure to try their national dish, pupusas, which are delicious griddled corn cakes (or rice cakes, sometimes) stuffed with meat, cheese, or vegetables. Loroco flowers are a traditional pupusa stuffing not always available in Salvadorian restaurants in the U.S., so if you see it on the menu, definitely try it. The flower is so popular in El Salvador that even local Pizza Huts feature loroco on their pizza during the rainy season from May to June. Of course, don’t just limit yourself to pupusas: Fresh seafood is plentiful in El Salvador, as are vegetarian and vegan dishes.
Also, drink as much horchata as you can. Not to throw shade on Mexican horchata, which is also delicious and well-known in the U.S., or Honduran horchata, which I fell in love with during an adventure-focused Honduras trip I took on my way to El Salvador, but Salvadorian horchata is my favorite. Salvadorian horchata has a more intense and nuanced flavor, thanks to crushed moro seeds. In fact, I loved it so much that the Salvadorian airport security stopped me because my backpack contained at least 10 bags of it. Who knew that, in addition to limits on the quantity of liquids in carry-on bags, there are also limits on powders? Not me. And so I was told that I’d need to check my bag.
Even if you don’t use TikTok to plan your trip, El Salvador makes for a shockingly easy vacation. The country is affordable and extremely easy to navigate, credit cards are widely accepted, and the official currency is the U.S. dollar, so you don’t need to worry about exchanging money. Highway signs are in English, roads are well-marked and in excellent condition, and Google Maps works well (most of the time), so it’s the perfect place to rent a car and road trip on your own. If you want support, hire a licensed guide (which isn’t necessary but definitely enhances the experience), or check out these transportation providers to find a driver. Uber is also an option within San Salvador, but it wouldn’t be practical (or cost-effective) to reach attractions several hours away from the capital.
With direct flights from New York City, Atlanta, and Houston, El Salvador is just two-to-four hours away from much of the United States. In fact, most Americans I met in El Salvador told me they had partly chosen the destination precisely for that reason. Several travelers said they specifically chose El Salvador because while it was a quick and easy flight away, it also offers an experience completely different from most other vacation destinations a similar distance away (again, sorry, Mexico, I promise I love you too!).
The U.S. State Department still has a Level 3 advisory for travel to El Salvador, owing to crime issues. Visitors should “be aware” of their surroundings and “be extra vigilant” when visiting banks or ATMs, the State Department advises. From my own experience, I’d say I felt extremely safe the entire time I was in the country, as did every other traveler I spoke with. Several American retirees explained to me how they’d been vacationing or living in El Salvador part-time for decades and had never felt unsafe.
El Salvador surprised me at every turn, and it easily became one of my favorite countries. There was nothing I didn’t love about the country, and I will definitely be heading back for a long weekend on the beach sometime soon. I just hope the sound of crashing waves won’t be interrupted by the sound of other beachgoers scrolling through TikTok.
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